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Implantable brain chips could help unlock memories

Imagine a world wherein you can just download information right into your brain? Just stick a jack into the back of your head, hit the ‘download’ button and away you go! It would be AWESOME, right? You could absorb the entire works of Shakespeare in an instant, and never have to worry about forgetting even the smallest of details. Such an ability would be extremely useful, but surely it’s so futuristic and far-fetched that it’ll never happen in our live times, right?

Well, actually the ability to upload memories or data direct to our brains isn’t so far fetched at all, at least, not according to one madcap professor.

Ted Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, says that all you need to make this possible is an implantable chip that can store terabytes of data, a port where you can insert a USB key or probe to start downloading data, and you’re good to go. Master a foreign language in seconds, or learn how to build a house in an instant ? the possibilities are endless.

Okay so the technology behind this hasn’t actually been built, but the theory is credible enough.

The prefrontal cortex of your brain is the one responsible for the processing of short term memory. Eventually, this information is directed to the hippocampus, a part of the medial temporal lobe of the brain responsible for long term memory processing. This is the reason why we don’t remember everything because along the way, some things just get buried so deep that it can’t be easily accessed. It’s not that the memories aren’t there, they’re just locked away.

Berger claims that he’s already proven that a computer chip can mimic the signal processing of neurons to potentially help people with damaged neural networks due to accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s, to process long term memory.

Though some critics view Berger and his research as something crazy and extreme, tests have proven it can be done. Animal rights activists may not approve of his methods of testing, but he and his research partners have tested silicon chips with the said capacity to generate memories in mice and monkeys.

Berger has developed mathematical theorems to better understand how the hippocampus turns short-term memories into long-term, and has used his findings to develop the silicon chip implants.

“You don’t have to do everything the brain does, but can you mimic at least some of the things the real brain does?” he asks.

“Can you model it and put it into a device? Can you get that device to work in any brain? It’s those three things that lead people to think I’m crazy. They just think it’s too hard.”

He gets frustrated with how some of his colleagues are contented with just studying the spikes seen when studying the brain but he wants to make sense of these spikes.

“What are you finding? ‘Activity went up.’ But what are you finding? ‘Activity went up.’ So what? Is it coding something? Is it representing something that the next neuron cares about? Does it make the next neuron do something different? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing: explaining things, not just describing things,” Berger added.

Richard Thompson, who studied localized, learning-induced changes in the brain, was Berger’s mentor at Harvard. The two were able to identify that electrical spikes represent memory development by studying a rabbit with its brain implanted with electrodes. But there’s still more to it that just studying spikes and patterns.

When Berger began working with Vasilis ­Marmarelis, a biomedical engineer at USC, the two were able to understand the how signals were transformed by creating mathematical theorems to explain how it happens. They then implemented those equations into computer chips. Following this, they began assessing if these chips could be implanted into brains to replace a damaged hippocampus. Thus they began testing on mice and monkeys by using an external chip and connecting it to the animal’s brain. They began training them, recording the impulses and turning these into a mathematical code, drugging the animals to make them forget what they learned, and via the chip, introduced the codes, and were once again able to do the things they learned before they were drugged.

Berger and his team hopes that in the next two years, they would be able to implant the chips inside the brains of the animals and in the future, use this technology to help people with damaged hippocampus regain their memories.

Though this may not be the Matrix-like technology you are hoping for, Berger’s research proves that it can be done; that computer chips can be used to mimic brain functions, and soon, may be allow these chips to introduce skills and knowledge, and not just unlocking memories.

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